Alex Katz’s Subway Drawings Give a Glimpse of 1940s New York
by Felsenthal, Julia

APRIL 25, 2017 4:48 PM
If you’re in New York City and you catch the Q train at the new subway station at 86th Street, you’ll glimpse a massive, scowling, photo-realistic portrait of the artist Alex Katz by his friend, the painter/photographer Chuck Close. But Katz’s presence can also be felt 30-odd blocks south. That’s where, seven decades ago, the artist would cross the river on the E line, en route from his parents’ home in St. Albans, Queens, to the East Village, where he spent three years in the late 1940s learning the tricks of the art trade as a student at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
Across town, at the British gallerist Timothy Taylor’s tiny Chelsea space, tucked away in the shadow of the High Line, the walls are lined with evidence of all those commutes: Katz’s subway sketches—loose pencil and ink drawings on paper that depict his fellow straphangers in a pre- and post-work daze. In one, a man with five-o’clock shadow wags a cigarette from his teeth and stares off into the middle distance, his stress evident in a single, rigidly cocked thumb. In another, a seated rider studiously attends to his newspaper, ignoring a standing figure’s substantial belly, jutting out at eye level. There are ladies in fantastic vintage hats, young women in pearls and capelets, and a beleaguered mother holding her face in her hands. There’s only one painting in the show: three lone wolves dressed for a night on the town, rendered in muddy colors with a flatness that hints at the style for which Katz is now known. But the artist is also known for working on a massive scale; here the painting is small. And while Katz has often worked with monochromatic backgrounds, here there’s an attention to detail of setting that’s uncharacteristic: Running along the top of the canvas, the young artist has documented subway ads for bullet bras, Lifesavers, and sandwich bread.
“Life Is Different than Cigarettes,” one reads. Another, difficult to make out, appears to say: “Lost Romance Will Soon Be at Your Neighborhood Itch.” Are these actual slogans, or jokes? Katz can’t recall. It’s been the better part of a century, after all. “The myth of the artist,” he proclaims exuberantly, imagining what a journalist would seek in these pictures. “This is the young man, starting out. With a lot of energy!”
The artist is now 89 years old, but as you may have gleaned, he retains copious amounts of energy. We’re seated on the gallery’s second story, at the top of a vertiginous flight of stairs that posed no obstacle. “You’re talking about a guy who runs every day,” Taylor informs me, guffawing at my concern. “He lives on the fifth floor of a Soho warehouse. I bet he doesn’t even use the elevator. He’s one of the fittest people I know.”
Katz, dressed in faded black jeans, turquoise New Balances, and a Kelly green T-shirt beneath a gray zip-up hoodie, is spry and boyish, though slightly stooped, with an animated face; a quick, easy sense of humor; and a thick outer-borough accent. “I made the drawings to learn how to draw fast from life,” he explains. In high school he’d been taught, as he puts it, “to draw from the antique. You’d take a week to make a drawing.” At Cooper Union, “you’d get 20 minutes with a model, and all I could get were a couple lines.”
Katz bounces from memory to memory, reminiscing as though his interviewer were right there with him at the time. At Cooper Union, modernism was the name of the game, and his figure-drawing teacher would dismiss Katz’s “very good, academic drawing” as “crap.”
“You know what I finally did?” The artist asks. “I [took] black poster paint and brushes and started drawing the woman. I made her into an ape.” It worked. “ ‘This is art!’ ” his teacher said. “The guys all came around me,” Katz recalls, “and I said: ‘This is crude-ism! And I’m the man. And you all have to follow me.’ ”
 “I was okay after that,” he goes on. “But I still wanted to learn to draw.” So he bought materials and started sketching “around the clock. When I wasn’t eating, I was drawing. Drawing all hours.” (To drive that point home, some of these sketches depict scenes from the Cooper Union cafeteria.)
But the trains offered the most convenient source material. “I like the subways because the people are so interesting to look at,” Katz offers. “The clothes and the colors and all that. I still like it.” He remembers one fellow rider vividly, a “brunette in a red dress.” They got to talking one night on the E at 4:00 a.m. “She’s coming from a date, and I’m coming from a date. She was totally sensational in every way. And she got off at Forest Hills,” one stop ahead of his. “I never got her number,” he bemoans. “This was 70 years ago.”
Katz kept these drawing notebooks in a closet at his parents’ house in Queens. At some point, he moved them to his studio in Manhattan and threw some away. “But I always thought they were pretty good,” he says. When he saw Taylor’s new gallery space on West 19th Street (it opened last fall), a quaint little rectangle of a room with whitewashed brick walls and a green ceiling, he realized it was the perfect place to show the drawings, which have never before been exhibited as a group. They cover three walls, and trace the process of an artist finding his hand, paring down his composition, honing his eye for gesture and expression and line.
Taylor sees them as foundational. “The thing is that Alex Katz is a great, great painter,” he tells me. “But all these paintings come from drawing. And arguably this is the moment at which he defined that. I’m not saying this gave him the rest of his career, but it certainly gave him the confidence to start painting in a very particular way.”
Later this month, the Cleveland Museum of Art will mount “Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s,” of the paintings that Katz made in the decade after he graduated Cooper Union and spent two influential summers at the Skowhegan School in Maine. “It rolls out of this,” he acknowledges of the work in that show. “I changed styles the minute I got out of school. In a practical sense, it was one of the dumbest things I ever did in my life. I applied for a Fulbright. I had three teachers who gave me A’s on the jury. And one of them said to me: ‘Alex, why did you send this? It’s crap. We couldn’t do a thing for you.’ ”
There’s a sense in which these drawings, quite literally, bridge the gap between the eager Queens boy, learning to be an artist and getting schooled in the rules of modernism, and the slick painter who brazenly rejected the fashion for abstract expressionism and reclaimed representational painting in a manner all his own. Katz may be known for his portraits of denizens of the glittering postwar Manhattan art and fashion worlds, but he prides himself on the accessibility of his work. He very much likes that his art lends itself to things like H&M collaborations. “I think of my paintings as, like, fancy paintings for connoisseurs. But the subject matter is for everybody,” he says. “When you take the painting out of it, and just have the subject matter, they relate to people.”
 A single work, he explains, can mean different things to different viewers. “You have the people on the street, the dealers, the other painters and poets, the collectors, the museumgoers. They all see a different painting.”
“I always felt like the guys I played ball with in Queens were as bright as the guys I met in New York City doing art,” he adds, then reconsiders: “When I think of it, they were brighter. And I wanted to make art that the guys I played ball with in Queens could like.”
“Alex Katz: Subway Drawings” opens to the public April 27 at Timothy Taylor Gallery, 515 West 19th Street in New York City.